It's been a long strange trip, swimming upstream, for the 11-year-old Colorado band that thrives on uncertainty and chaos, balancing unparalleled musicianship with unbridled abandon. The newest incarnation of Leftover Salmon returns to Denver's Fillmore Auditorium Saturday to seize the stage and pick some cat gut.
They're armed and dangerous again, sharing a bill with Retrograss, the supergroup of alumnae from the founding generation of newgrass pioneers, David Grisman, John Hartford, and Mike Seeger. Hartford was the first to epitomize the rebellious convention bending approach to bluegrass music that holds the Leftover boys firmly within its addictive grip. "We're huge fans of John Hartford and cover a bunch of his tunes," Salmon mandolinist and singer Drew Emmitt told the Indy from the famed Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco, hours before opening a stand at the original Fillmore.
"We recently got to meet John Hartford in Salt Lake City," Emmitt continued. "We'd heard that he really liked our version of his 'Up on the Hill Where We Do the Boogie' on The Nashville Sessions. Sure enough he says, 'That version you do of "Boogie" is exactly how I pictured somebody doing one of my tunes. People always record my songs and it's always this wimpy cow-bell-dinging kind of stuff. You guys got it. You rock it!' That was a big honor for him to say that about us, because he's influenced all of us hugely. We've sung his songs for years. He influenced a whole generation of this newgrass movement."
For a mandolin player like Emmitt, however, the exposure to the Dawg himself, David Grisman, might have been even more influential. "Grisman was really the first mandolin player that I actually went out and bought his records. He made me really excited about playing the mandolin."
Ironically, Emmitt first saw Grisman playing with his old quintet -- made up of Mark O'Connor, Darrel Anger, Mike Marshall and Rob Wasserman -- at the Rainbow Music Hall in Denver years ago with John Hartford opening the show.
But the bottom line for Leftover Salmon has always been the seminal influence of New Grass Revival, the band that brought it all together for a rock 'n' roll generation that didn't want to give up bluegrass instruments as a means to amp up performances.
"They totally influenced the way I play bluegrass," Emmitt said of the band that begot Sam Bush, John Cowan and Bela Fleck. "I wanted to branch out from the traditional bluegrass thing, and when I saw them I realized you can play bluegrass and rock at the same time. That's kind of the whole concept for this band."
But for all their musical innovation, Salmon are deeply committed to preserving the legacies of old timey, string band and traditional bluegrass. They've created such a deftly fused and distinctively original stylistic gumbo that it's often bewildering to hear covers, like Hartford's "Boogie," sounding like vintage Leftover, back-to-back with originals like "Midnight Blue," a dead-ringer for first generation grass. "We like to keep you guessing like that," said Emmitt.
"I'm a huge Monroe fan," he admitted. "On 'Midnight Blue,' I really tried to emulate a traditional bluegrass song." The band recorded it with Ronnie and Del McCoury for The Nashville Sessions, and the senior McCoury's praise for the song validated Emmitt's efforts. "It really made me feel like, 'Hey, this is cool. I kind of did channel some kind of traditional influence on this.' "
Last fall, the band dealt with a significant detour as their momentum was momentarily derailed by the departure of the rhythm section. Jeff Sipe and Tye North left the band, on good terms, to dedicate more time to their families, prompting a revision of the band's line-up and sound.
"I definitely miss them a lot as brothers and people I spent a lot of great times with," said Emmitt. But the spirit of the band has endured, with newcomers Greg Garrison on bass, Jos Martinez on drums, and Bill McCay on keyboards joining Emmitt, Mark Vann on banjo, and Vince Herman on guitar, washboard and vocals.
According to Emmitt, the band's thinking was, "Let's not just change the rhythm section, let's take it up a notch. We're loving it. To us, this is the best incarnation yet." He described the new sound as "a little more over the top ... more leaning towards rock 'n' roll," although he assured, "We're still doing a lot of the same bluegrass and calypso and Cajun stuff. It's all there and more."
The Leftover boys are already planning on reviving last summer's Salmon Fest. They've got a couple days lined up in Horning's Hideout in Portland, Ore., and they're working on securing a site in Missouri for a road version of last fall's festival in Lyons, promoting the festival and campground scene that is their lifeblood. As for a return to the Planet Bluegrass site in Lyons, Colo., Emmitt said, "I don't think it's ever going to happen there again. That was pretty over the top for that place."
The over-the-top attitude is nothing new in world of the Fish. The band's rally cry has its roots in Emmitt's Trekkie youth, when his unassuming afternoon routine was to "come home from junior high, grab something to eat, sit down and watch Star Trek and do whatever else to elevate my mind. It was religious for me."
Years later, on his way to Telluride in friend Michael Slingsby's pickup truck, the two began reminiscing about a Star Trek episode called "The Return of the Archons." As Emmitt tells it, "All these people walk around like zombies. Then the clock strikes a certain hour. It's the Red Hour and people run around in the street yelling 'FESTIVAL!' We started yelling 'FESTIVAL!' and it turned into this huge thing."
Another old tradition is the band's all night merry prankstering throughout campgrounds after the official end of a festival evening. "It was all kind of born in Telluride, probably '89," said Emmitt, chuckling. "Some of us would go around to campfires and sort of sneak around and jump out and start playing something and totally break up the jam and then run away.
"And gradually you build up a following of people going with you, surrounding these campfires and disturbing people's jams. We started singing this song 'Anawhack' by the Austin Lounge Lizards about Anawhack, Texas. We'd all sing it really out of tune, and play it, then run away." The tradition continues, even as the band evolves as a national headliner.
It's part of the band's growing legend, the personification of all the mythic energy that bluegrass and newgrass and 2002-grass embody, from Uncle Pen and the Tennessee Stud to Panama Red and the Free Mexican Air Force. The madness is inseparable from the musicians, and it's impossible to tell which came first, the chaos or the band. "A little of both, I'm sure," Emmitt laughed. "I mean truly, that whole experience of Anawhacking in Telluride was really how this band was born. That kind of energy. We're just going to have fun and do crazy things and take it to the streets."
Don't be surprised to find some madness on the streets of Denver Saturday as the Red Hour approaches and the zombies come out to boogie.